War survives tsunami's impact
Seattle Times staff reporter
The War in Aceh
For more than 500 years — from the 15th to the early 20th century — Aceh was an independent kingdom that spread across a region more than three times the size of Washington state at the northern end of Sumatra.
The more than 4 million people in the province have held on to their own language and their own brand of Islam that, compared to the rest of Indonesia, includes a stricter adherence to religious tenets.
They have long chafed at Indonesian rule, which many Acehnese believe has not adequately shared the province's wealth with its people. The Free Aceh Movement — the rebel movement known as GAM — issued a declaration of independence in 1976. The armed struggle has dragged on for more than a quarter-century and has included human-rights violations by the military, as well as by the rebels.
In 2001 and 2002, an estimated 4,000 people were killed in the fighting, and an estimated 100,000 were forced to flee their homes. In 2003, after a cease-fire agreement broke down, fighting intensified and the Indonesian government closed the province to most foreigners. It was opened up only after the Dec. 26 tsunami.
The Indonesian government has agreed to grant the province limited autonomy. But the government has long opposed rebel demands to establish a breakaway state, which could lay claim to the revenue generated by the province's rich stores of natural gas now tapped by Exxon Mobil.
A new round of negotiations between GAM and Indonesian forces is scheduled for later this month in Finland.
Sources: The Associated Press, Human Rights Watch
and a U.S. Congressional Research Service report of Sept. 25, 2002.
ACEH PROVINCE, Indonesia — The villager wants to speak of death — not the random wrath of a runaway sea, but the calculated and more recent killings undertaken by Indonesian security forces.
Not far from this village of fishermen and farmers, the young man says, he recently found the mutilated bodies of seven men, each with his stomach ripped open.
"Everybody is talking about the tsunami," he said "Nobody is talking about what is happening here."
His coastal village, like many in the eastern half of Aceh province, was only lightly hit by the giant waves that struck Dec. 26 and killed 117,810 people in Indonesia with another 114,922 still missing.
But the village continues to be deeply scarred by the continuing war between the Indonesian military and the Acehnese rebel forces seeking independence.
Much of the fighting now takes place far from the areas most devastated by the tsunami, where international aid groups are working to help more than 400,000 displaced people. It unfolds in remote patches of tropical forest, along contested stretches of highway or in night raids targeting civilians suspected of supporting the rebels.
The war could have a profound effect on Aceh's ability to rebuild, creating new waves of refugees and undermining the local economy.
But some observers see the tsunami, coupled with the presence of so many outsiders in the once largely closed province, as an opportunity to shine global attention on the conflict and create pressure on the Indonesian government and rebels to end the fighting.
"This will highlight that this is an international cause, not just an internal problem of the Indonesian government," said Shadia Marhaban, an Acehnese activist now living in the United States. She works with the Aceh Information Referendum Center, a group seeking a vote on the province's future.
For now, though, the war is a sensitive subject for international aid groups.
While the Indonesian military is accused of waging an often brutal campaign against rebels and civilian supporters, it is also a key ally in tsunami relief efforts. Many aid officials say that speaking out about the war would be perceived as meddling, and could jeopardize their work.
"If you are going to work in Indonesia and serve the best interest of the people affected by the earthquake and tsunami, you are going to have to behave in a certain manner," said Mark Schlansky, whose Seattle-based organization, Uplift International, has delivered medicine and other supplies to Aceh province.
"If you want to get involved in politics, that could shut things down for a lot of the aid groups."
The Indonesian military has cited the threat of rebel attacks as a reason for monitoring the movements of foreign workers in rural areas and offering armed escorts for aid convoys.
International aid officials and military commanders have also found common ground as they labored — in daily meetings — on the logistics of food deliveries, erecting tent camps and finding safe sources of water.
"From our perspective, we have had really good cooperation with them, and no problems," said Simona Opitz, of the International Organization for Migration, a Geneva-based organization that operates a fleet of 350 trucks that ferry supplies to Aceh Province.
Those trucks have moved around the province without security incidents, Opitz said.
A war of tortureThe conflict has dragged on for more than two decades and has involved serious human-rights violations. Villages have been torched, and thousands have been killed or displaced in an Indonesian military campaign notable for "torture, murder and intimidation," according to a U.S. Congressional Research Service report.
The rebels — the Free Aceh Movement, known as GAM — have gained support from villagers who have suffered from the tactics of the Army and paramilitary security forces. GAM has added to the cycle of violence, targeting those it suspects of collaborating with the military.
The tsunami hasn't brought peace.
To keep pressure on the rebels, some 20,000 troops are now involved in security operations in Aceh, Indonesian military officials confirm. Those troops killed at least 120 GAM rebels during the last two weeks in January, according to military officials interviewed by The Jakarta Post. Most of the fighting now occurs inland, away from the tsunami-battered west coast.
One of the war's hot spots has been the area around the eastern Aceh village where the seven bodies were discovered in January. Several years ago, Indonesian forces burned down a nearby village. Though the GAM forces have been sharply reduced in recent years, some rebel fighters still take refuge in nearby forests.
Military officials have generally sought to restrict journalists' travel to villages in this area of the province. But late last month, a Seattle Times reporter was able to make a brief visit, which lasted less than a day before military officials questioned the reporter and asked that he leave the area.
The village was reached by a lengthy bus ride along a two-lane highway out of the provincial capital of Banda Aceh. Initially, there was plenty of light-hearted chatter as the driver raced down the road like a kamikaze pilot, passing other vehicles on blind curves, then weaving back into his own lane to just avert head-on collisions.
But the mood grew tense as the bus reached a checkpoint manned by Indonesian soldiers and police. The male passengers were ordered out of the bus. They lined up alongside the road and pulled out identity cards, which were subjected to withering scrutiny.
Soldiers and police sometimes demand payments from passengers. If the money is not forthcoming, the passengers risk being hauled away, roughed up or even killed, according to a second driver aboard the bus.
To emphasize the risks, he ran his finger — like a knife — across his throat. But on this evening, no bribes appeared to be demanded, and all the passengers were allowed to reboard.
The village was just a whistle-stop along the route. Modest homes with yards full of chickens stretched back from the main highway toward shrimp-farm ponds and a palm-fringed crescent of beach.
The tsunami's impact here was much smaller than in the western part of the province. Though several dozen beachside homes were destroyed and a 9-month-old boy was lost, most of the village and its fishing fleet was unscathed. So the area has not merited much attention from international aid agencies.
But its notoriety as a place of GAM support has drawn plenty of scrutiny from the military. While GAM has in the past established some bases in the area, the military appeared in firm control of the village.
Along a rutted road leading toward the beach, a half-dozen soldiers manned a post at a palm-thatched shelter. These were muscular young men, dressed in Army pants and T-shirts emblazoned with the U.S. Marines logo or Bon Jovi likenesses.
Their presence was a source of uncertainty and fear for villagers. Those who agreed to speak asked to remain anonymous to guard against reprisals. They also requested that the name of their village be withheld.
"It is all still the same, people are taken away at night — and the next day they may be dead," said the villager who discovered the seven mutilated corpses. Four of those corpses appeared to be GAM fighters. The other three were villagers who had not joined the rebel forces, he said in a voice wracked by sobs.
To help head off human-right abuses, Marhaban, the Acehnese activist, would like to see more international aid workers travel to the war-torn areas of the province.
"It is crucial for people to come and visit — even if they do not say anything about the situation," she said. "They should at least come, so the people won't feel so isolated."
Indonesian government officials say they, too, want an end to the fighting.
On Jan. 21, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono made an emotional journey to the wrecked city of Banda Aceh to appear at morning prayer service at the central mosque. He said he wanted the tragedy to bring people together, ushering in a new era of peace and prosperity.
Since that speech, the two sides have agreed to a new round of peace talks in Finland, with the next negotiations scheduled for later this month. A key sticking point in these talks — as in earlier negotiations — is whether Aceh should have the option of voting to break away from Indonesia.
In the meantime, the military continues the hunt for GAM rebels and sympathizers.
One villager said security forces had killed his uncle before the tsunami. The day after the president's speech, his father was seized.
"I don't know if he will ever come back," he said.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or email@example.com
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